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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Posted by martinteller on May 15, 2015

It’s been a night of animation, and what a good night it’s been.  Going into this, I had forgotten that it was based on the same folktale that Kon Ichikawa adapted in 1987 for Princess from the Moon.  I recognized the story within the first few minutes, and for the most part the plots are very similar.  But this is a textbook example of how different approaches to the same material can have wildly different results.  Ichikawa’s film is a lifeless, empty affair that borrows heavily (and poorly) from Spielberg.  It squanders both its oddball premise and Toshiro Mifune, and is one of the worst films I’ve seen by Ichikawa.

Kaguya, on the other hand, is Takahata’s finest work (even finer than the touching Only Yesterday), and Studio Ghibli’s best in over a decade.  It’s charming and funny and delightful, it’s sorrowful and meaningful, it’s magical but not simply weird.  And most of all, it’s absolutely stunning.  “Like a storybook come to life” is kind of a cliché when talking about animation, but this truly looks like a storybook come to life, down to the way the edges of the frame tend to fade into white.  It’s simply gorgeous artwork… such delicate lines and gentle motion, tasteful use of color, subtlety of expression, attention to detail.  Talking about Watership Down, I said it doesn’t dazzle you with technique.  This movie does.  It dazzles and exhilarates and creates an astonishingly beautiful environment.  Just lovely.

And it’s done in service of a story that resonates.  Although the plot points were all familiar to me, Takahata breathes new life into it and gives it meaning.  Kaguya’s journey is not simple and linear, it takes on different shades.  She’s a character you connect with because she’s figuring out her attitudes and desires while you watch.  And the film doesn’t culminate in the easy ending with all the emotional threads tied up in pretty bows.  It makes you feel good by not trying so damn hard to make you feel good.

I will say the movie feels a bit drawn out (no pun intended).  It’s a long film, and hits certain notes a few too many times (and while Kaguya develops, her father remains dumb-headed for far too long).  I’m not a big fan of speculating about what I would cut from a movie that feels lengthy, but if I watched it again I could probably come up with a few scenes I could do without.  Or maybe not, because even the superfluous bits feature that incredible artwork.  Rating: Very Good (88)

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